Steve Vai: The Ultra Zone
Guitarist/composer Steve Vai helped lead the late 80s instrumental metal, "shred" guitar wave with his lead guitar work in several metal bands and his second solo album Passion and Warfare (1990). However, Vai's roots ran musically deeper than most of his instrumental metal colleagues, partly due to his stint in Frank Zappa's band and his idiosyncratic first solo record Flex-able (1984). Flex-able showed monster chops and unpredictable songwriting, understandably Zappa influenced, and all recorded in Vai's garage. Passion and Warfare dripped with grandiose sound and playing, showcasing varied compositional styles and new guitar technology. Later, Vai experimented with a full band, including singer Devin Townsend, on Sex and Religion (1993), and began singing his own vocals on the concept solo album Fire Garden (1996).
The Ultra Zone finds Steve Vai taking full advantage of his mastery of sonic collage to layer dripping wet guitars, synthesizers, and electronic percussion underneath his trademark wah pedal drenched, glassy lead guitar. Some tracks feature Vai on all instruments, live and programmed, while others include live bass and drums by session musicians, and even a horn section on "Lucky Charms."
The song selection mixes some rather stock instrumental metal guitar fare, like "Jibboom," with clever, uniquely Vai compositions, like the sonically adventurous "Voodoo Acid" or the electronica-tinged rocker "The Ultra Zone." Vai writes most effectively in the sweeping, almost cinematic style of "Blood and Tears" and "Fever Dream," or the quirky, Zappa influenced style of "Lucky Charms" or "Frank," a tribute to his deceased former mentor. The ballad "Windows to the Soul" stutters in an 11:8 time shuffle underneath Vai's fluid leads, reminiscent of "For the Love of God" from Passion and Warfare. The instrumental tracks include a few gratuitous "shred" moments of cumbersome and lengthy guitar solos, but Vai mostly remains within the musical context and restrains his ferocious chops until the right moments.
Vai writes far less effectively when focusing his songs on lyrics or vocals, and unfortunately like Fire Garden, he sings most of the vocals on The Ultra Zone himself. The ballad section of "I'll Be Around" sounds like music for the slow dance scene in some mid 80s high school romance movie, complete with mediocre vocals and sappy lyrics. The ponderous blues riffing and throaty vocals on "Here I Am" completely spoil the soaring mood that the previous track "Fever Dream" builds so well.
Vai can integrate vocals into his instrumental compositional style with admirable results. In "Blood and Tears," the un-credited, exotic accented female spoken word, in English, and the ethereal female vocals in a different language (Hindi, perhaps?), add a beautiful melodic counterpoint to Vai's soaring guitar. Guest vocalist Koshi Inaba backs and trades with Vai's vocals on the expansive closer "Asian Sky," and Vai's largely spoken word vocals on "Voodoo Acid" fit the sonically experimental texture of that song. The liner notes to Fire Garden posted on www.vai.com justify Vai's singing, based on the difficulty in finding "that perfect chemistry between a vocalist and a guitarist." While covering the vocals himself may most practically convey Vai's artistic expression, the combination of his lyrics, his substandard songwriting in the vocal tunes, and his vocal performance provides the weakest moments on The Ultra Zone.
Despite the vocal tracks, The Ultra Zone contains enough "shred" lead guitar to please his small but dedicated fan base, and enough quirky instrumentals to show that Steve Vai remains musically above most of his instrumental guitar peers.